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Blog of Sarah McIntyre, children's book writer & illustrator
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1. chichester mini break

So I have this big looming picture book deadline and a couple weeks ago Stuart kindly said, 'Do you want to cancel our little trip to Chichester?' And I said, 'NO!' because, you know, PRIORITIES. And it was great! Stuart often comes along to book festivals with me, but I'm running around doing events, so it's not really the same as going away on holiday.

I thought it was going to be more of a relaxing trip, but we ended up cycling 63 miles over three days; Stuart clocked it on his little bike mile counter thingie. Chichester is a great area for cycling, lots of little paths through the wheat fields and by the sea.

We even cycled a little bit through the sea when we reached Bosham at high tide (pronounced BOZZ'um, we finally worked out).

One of the only things I knew about Chichester is that amazing illustrator Warwick Johnson Cadwell runs boat tours there (Chichester Harbour Water Tours), so we met up with him down at Itchenor Harbour and went along for a ride. I knew about this because almost every day he posts his 'Passenger of the Day' sketch on his Instagram. Actually, we missed the boat on the first day because it took longer than we thought to cycle from Chichester, so we saw him two days.

Warwick's kids used to read my comics when I was drawing Vern and Lettuce, so they knew about me a little, and it was fun getting to sit in The Ship Inn by the harbour and draw with them. And look, I got to be Passenger of the Day!! :D

Hester and I drew each other and I LOVE her drawing. It's stylised in a very cool way.

Willy and I drew all sorts of things: dragons, Slender Man, etc, but here are doodles of Warwick and him:

Stuart was rather excited because Keith Richards was sitting at a nearby table, wahey.

And a snapshot of a rough sketch I made of Warwick ('Skipper of the Day') and Hester on the boat.

Hester was making a comic (cover shown here) and was already making good progress on it by the time we docked. Thanks so much for meeting up, Warwick! You can follow him on Twitter as @WarwickJC. (He drew Young Tank Girl for the new Moose Kid Comics.)

On another day, Stuart and I cycled over to the Witterings (isn't that a great name?) and visited the famous beach at West Wittering. Oh MY, was that car park packed! It took us something like ten minutes to cycle from one end to the other; there must have been 10,000 people at the beach that day. The car park was so dreadful that we almost left, but then when we locked up our bikes and walked over the dune, suddenly the beach opened up, and it was so big that it didn't feel crowded anymore, and we could see why people love going there. I didn't take a photo of the whole beach, but here's a view of some of those little sandworm piles that used to freak me out when I was a kid. They look like little poos, or brains or something. And we spotted some Sarcastic Seaweed, just like you find in Oliver and the Seawigs.

A few more snapshots. I'm not a very good landscape photographer and these didn't come out half as good as they look in real life. But then I put a spooky filter on them and suddenly they looked kind of dramatic, like a horror film, so there you go. (It didn't really look like a horror film.)

While we were in the Witterings, we stopped by to see my fabulous publicist Philippa Perry, who lives in East Wittering. She has a cat named Frodo who looks SO much like the cat I had growing up. The cat and I jumped on the trampoline together and I was quite smitten.

So a good holiday, and Stuart loved getting so many chances to ride his bike; I got a terribly sore bum from that, but the countryside around there is so beautiful that it was worth it, ow OW.

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2. oliver and the seawigs launches in the usa!

The Sea Monkeys are loose in America!!! My book with Philip Reeve, Oliver and the Seawigs launches with Random House TODAY!! Seawigs is being published in 20 countries now, but how will it fare in the place where I grew up? ...I am SO CURIOUS.

Sea Monkey knitting pattern by Deadly Knitshade... Know anyone who knits? You can download yours free here!

I'm originally from Seattle, and growing up near beaches and tidepools did play a major part in the creation of our story.

Here's a drawing I made as a kid of the rocks near Cannon Beach, in Oregon, where our family used to go on vacation almost every year. (You might also recognise it as the setting from the 1985 film The Goonies.)

I drew some of the inspiration for the setting of Oliver and the Seawigs from my family visits to the fishing village of Seldovia, in Alaska. Here you can see the Crisp family house, supported on stilts and wooden pilings.

And here are some of my drawings from Alaska. I showed Philip these drawings when we were still coming up with the story idea, and we both thought it looked like the perfect place for our tale.

My Japanese-Hawaiian uncle's family owns one of the stilted cottages in Seldovia and I love watching otters swim by, and bald eagles swoop down and steal fish from the seagulls.

Another American influence comes from my dad's love of mountaineering. (Mr Crisp looks a little bit like my dad - mostly the nose and ears - and little Oliver is already an exploration pro by the age of ten.) When my sister and I each turned 16, climbing Mt Rainier - the huge snowy peak overlooking Seattle - was very much our coming-of-age activity. We were well-trained in using climbing harnesses and practiced hanging from trees in prusik slings to simulate what might happen if we fell down an icy crevasse.

Ha ha, see that little mountain goat? My sister and I used to laugh at them because they would follow us around, trying to lick up our pee. (For the salt, apparently, but... yuck!)

So what is a Seawig, you might rightly ask? Well, when you see an island, keep in mind that not all of them stay in the same place all the time. Some of them are Rambling Isles, which hunker under the water with only the tops of their heads showing, and look a bit like giants when they stand up! And they love collecting stuff on their heads, and take great pride in all the flotsam and jetsam that washes up on their shores. (Shipwrecks are particularly fashionable.)

You can find out a bit more about Oliver and the Seawigs in this video with Philip Reeve and me, filmed in my London studio. For part of it, I'm wearing a Marie-Antoinette-style Seawig I made our of saran wrap/cling film, but you can see a MUCH LARGER version here, heh heh.

Oliver and the Seawigs - Meet the creators from MB Films on Vimeo.

And learn how to draw a Sea Monkey! (You can also download a printable step-by-step guide from my website.)

Oliver and the Seawigs - How to draw a Sea Monkey from MB Films on Vimeo.

You can also watch the Oliver and the Seawigs trailer and a little puppet show with Oliver and Iris the mermaid!

If you or a friend get a chance to knit a Sea Monkey, I'd love to see it. Tweet a picture to Philip (@philipreeve1) and me (@jabberworks), using the hash tag #Seawigs, and we'll go EEP! EEP! with excitement. :D You can also find me on Facebook here, and Philip right here.

We hope you like the book! If you'd like to see my earlier Seawigs blog posts, and peek at some awesome things other people have made, you can click here.

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3. summer reading challenge: draw anansi!

Try your hand at drawing Anansi, one of the Mythical Maze characters in the Summer Reading Challenge! It's easy, if you do it step by step:

If you'd like to print it out for your library (or to use at home, or at work - adults can try it, too!), you can download a PDF here.

Some background: When I was planning out the Mythical Maze characters, some of them changed quite a bit from my original sketches. But not Anansi, I think I nailed him with my first drawing. I taped this bit of paper to the wall of my studio:

Anansi's an African trickster god, and the god of stories. When you think of spiders, you think of dusty corners and cobwebs. But I'd been reading a Telegraph article about men in the Congo who live in quite rough places, but take great pride in dressing very smartly. The basic philosophy of the Society of Elegant Persons of the Congo: to defy circumstance and live with joie de vivre. I liked the idea of making Anansi a very dapper chap. Thus, the yellow hat, cool glasses and spats.

I've heard storytellers tell tales of Anansi - he comes very much from an oral tradition of storytelling - but I can think of two books I've read about him. I grew up with Anansi the Spider, the picture book by Gerald McDermott, and much later I read Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. Two books couldn't be more different, but they're both inspired by the same mythical character, and I'm sure the two books (and newspaper article) inspired me.

But those are just two Anansi books, there must be lots more. Can you tell me about any other top Anansi books or comics? Leave a note in the comments if you know of one, a really good one!

Why not try writing your own Anansi story? What sort of tricksy adventures would your Anansi get up to? Can you use spiderwebs as part of the design for your book cover or comic? Your setting could feel very African, or you could show Anansi right where you are, maybe in your home, at the shops, at a funfair, or even as far away as the moon. You can draw Anansi more like a person or more like a spider, or perhaps your Anansi will be female. It's up to you!

I'd love to see your drawings and comics, if you want to tweet photos of them on the #SummerReadingChallenge hash tag. Don't forget that the Medusa Malarky comic competition is still going on! You can download your comic Story Starter here.

Oh dear, yesterday someone in Seattle set their house on fire trying to kill a spider with a blowtorch. Do NOT try this at home! Spiders are tricksy. ...Oo, and there's another possible story starter.

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4. summer reading challenge + a royal reading adventure


Photo by Sarah Reeve

Yesterday the Summer Reading Challenge team took me and the Medusa fascinator to Exeter Library to talk and draw with children from St Leonard’s Primary School ...and the Duchess of Cornwall! (Camilla is no stranger to the Medusa hat; you can see hers on a Royal Hats blog here.) I talked with the kids about the Mythical Maze characters I'd drawn, then they helped me draw a four-panel comic about an yeti-Medusa adventure, showing them how easy it is to make a story. Then we all drew Medusa (one kid had something like 46 snakes on his Medusa - it looked like an explosion!).

I talked a bit about how we are still creating myths and legends; no one can second-guess which will be the stories remembered for thousands of years, but we can try our creative best and who knows, perhaps people will still remember our characters for generations to come. I introduced them to my Oliver and the Seawigs co-author Philip Reeve and we pointed out the little Sea Monkey on the poster, saying it was our contribution this year to myth making. Then I invited Camilla to come help me draw a Sea Monkey and she was such a good sport about it! I liked her monkey, it's very cheeky.

And we all sang the Sea Monkey song! Camilla said she wouldn't be able to get the chorus our of her head, and I apologised. (It does have an annoying catchiness to it.)

Photo by Sarah Reeve

By the time we got back to London, people were already sending us links to news reports! Camilla wasn't the only one giggling, after I'd read this Daily Mail article:

Organising this visit was quite a feat! Big thanks to Head of Libraries, Culture & Heritage for Devon Ciara Eastell:

Photo by Sarah Reeve

And to Head Librarian Karen Bowdler and her son Connor:

And to Philip! He's not part of the Summer Reading Challenge but he's a Devon local, and it was SO much more fun doing the event with him helping me draw a bit and singing the Sea Monkey song with me.

And we were both able to dedicate a copy of Seawigs to the Duchess:

Thanks to Philip's wife, Sarah Reeve for taking lots of these photos!

Here's our Summer Reading Challenge gang: Reading Agency director Anne Sarrag, writer Damian Kelleher and publicist Annabel Robinson and gleeful Sea Monkey.

Phew, what an odd day! Now back to work on my picture book... Read the rest of this post

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5. nine world geekfest events!

Hey, I've been hearing awesome things about London's Nine Worlds Convention, running from 8-10 Aug. And the guy who contacted me about doing events was Jared Shurin, who's one of my favourite people in book world. (And I've only met him at Kitschies events a few times; I mostly watch him and his partner Anne Perry getting up to antics online.) Anyway, check it out, there's loads going on. So much, in fact, that a lot of people are booking hotel rooms near Heathrow and staying all weekend.

While you're there, come along to my Cakes in Space event with my co-author Philip Reeve. (And it may be the first time a limited number of advance copies of the books will be available for sale.) I'm getting up to a few things:

Saturday: MONSTERCLASS: Comics 5.00pm - 6.15pm, Room 30
Explore comics with illustrators Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve, and get tips on making your own. Intimate masterclass, max 12 people.

Saturday: Working with Artists: drawing up professional relationships, 6.45pm - 8.00pm
County A
How can artists get the best from their writers, and vice versa? Advice about making great things.
Q&A, with Sarah McIntyre, Emma Vieceli, Gillian Redfearn, Djibril al-Ayad, Adam Christopher

Sunday: Food in Science Fiction, 1.30-2.45pm
How do aliens eat? What do they eat? Do they eat at all? Will they want to eat us? Food is essential to human survival and to the survival of most everything we normally think of as living, so in any journey to an alien world it can never be forgotten. Our panel discuss the different ways in which we might grow or construct food in the future, as well as the role food plays in science fiction of all kinds
Panel: Sarah McIntyre, Gareth L. Powell and Aliette de Bodard

Sunday: Philip Reeve & Sarah McIntyre: CAKES IN SPACE!, 11.45am - 1.00pm, Room 38
Robots! Spaceships! Killer Cupcakes! Batty Battenbergs! Explore the furthest reaches of storytelling and drawing with this space-suited dream team!
The bestselling authors of Oliver and the Seawigs turn their attention to outer space in their new book CAKES IN SPACE. Grab your pencil and get set for zany adventure, in this stage show / creative masterclass / collaborative singing / storytelling spectacular!

Front endpapers for Cakes in Space, published this September by Oxford University Press

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6. london YA lit con 2014

Hatted up, suited and booted: just another day heading into the office...

Ha ha! It's so much fun when other people dress up, not just me. Yesterday I went to YA Lit Con (that's Young Adult Literature Convention, or #YALC), held as part of the London Film and Comic Con at Earl's Court in London. On the pavement outside, this lady in her fine threads won my heart... until she shot an arrow straight through it. Aiee!

Seriously, where else do you get this many unaccompanied kids and teenagers together in one place - many with MASSIVE WEAPONS - and have such a well-behaved, literate group of people? These people LOVE stories, and they often don't just want to read them, but become actual characters in these new myths and legends. I love this so much. Here's Martin Chilton's coverage of YALC in The Telegraph:

When I got to the Green Room, I went a little crazy with taking selfies with lots of people there. Steve Cole was super-chuffed to get his photo taken with one of the Doctor Who characters, Paul McGann. (Steve had written BBC books starring Paul's Doctor from '97-'99.) To be honest, I had a bit of a crush on him in the film Withnail and I; there's even two pages in Morris the Mankiest Monster based on screen shots I took of that film.

Hey look, Mark Gatiss! Editor of Oliver and the Seawigs and Cakes in Space Clare Whitston REALLY wanted a photo with him. Wahey! I think he does a great job playing Sherlock Holmes's brother Mycroft in the BBC's Sherlock. Ooh, and writer Catherine Johnson got in for a shot!

Oo, and Clare quite fancied a shot with Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Anthony Head. And writer Bryony Pearce!

Then I got SOUNDLY TOLD OFF by one of the red-t-shirted YALC staff, saying that the Green Room is a place of refuge from fans and I was NOT to be taking any more photos. Which was actually pretty gutsy, as she was quite young, and it's not easy to tell people off like that. Respect.

But I did snap a few more very quiet Green Room photos of friendly faces, including YA Lit Con founder and Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman, fellow comics panelist Emma Vieceli, writer Catherine Johnson and writer Charlie Higson.

Malorie's been such a great laureate; this YA Lit Con was her idea, to get books and their authors right in there where so many kids gather for comics, film and dressing up. Then Katherine Woodfine and Booktrust set the gears in motion and put in a LOT of hard work to make it happen. You can read more about it in this piece Malorie wrote for The Guardian:

YALC really was two worlds colliding for me: usually I have my book world friends and my comics friend, and rarely do the two meet. If you look at book festival line-ups, you'd think UK children's book authors are quite evenly divided male-female, but if you go to children's book social events, I usually see a lot more women. Whereas, until recently, I'd go to comics gatherings and sometimes be the only woman in the room. This is all changing and it's great to see the different crowds mixing and merging. The place it really started for me was with the DFC weekly magazine, which is now The Phoenix Comic, and it brought out of the comics woodwork people who can write for children (and many who because solid friends).

I wouldn't label myself as a 'YA writer', but people of all ages have given me great feedback on my Vern and Lettuce comic, and I hate to think Oliver and the Seawigs wouldn't appeal to teens and adults. But as YA isn't specifically 'my thing' (What even is YA?), I chaired a panel, rather than spoke on it. Here's our Going Graphic event with Marcus Sedgwick, Emma Vieceli and Ian Edginton, where we discussed adapting comics from pre-existing text-only books. I think the event went well, despite it being very noisy in the big hall; we had a great turnout and several people live-tweeted it. At dinner that evening, Emma wanted to clarify that what she had said about writing and drawing; she meant that it's easier to get work if you can produce images, not just a script, but that that actual drawing part is WAY harder and more time-consuming than the writing. But I thought it was quite funny when she talked about how she'll sometimes have internal arguments between herself as the writer and as the artist; one side of her can get quite annoyed with the other. You can follow the three of them on Twitter: @marcussedgwick, @Emmavieceli, @IanEdginton. Ian's adapting Malorie Blackman's Noughts & Crosses, with artwork by the amazing John Aggs, and I'm with loads of people who are looking forward to that.

Emma and I did our signings next to each other and it was fun seeing some great costumes parade by. Emma has some MEGA fans for her Vampire Academy series, and she was able to provide a printed prologue for her ongoing BREAKS web comic.

One of the coolest things that happened all day was something I don't usually get to see at book festivals; three black boys, aged somewhere between 10 an 13, hung around for awhile watching me draw and sign in books. Two of them spent time looking through the books and bought themselves copies, and one of them asked me how I went about getting published. I was able to introduce him right there to my Oxford University Press editor, Clare Whitston, and he grilled Clare, quite professionally, about what he needed to do. He's written about aliens, and I suspect this kid could go places. Special kudos to their librarian, whom they said told them about the event, and may have even brought them and let them go off on their own to explore.

Sadly, I didn't get photos of them (and wouldn't have had adult permission to post them), but I DID get a great photo of writer Andy Robb's kid. His whole family came by for copies of Oliver and the Seawigs, and I tweeted this photo. Then Andy tweeted back:

Hooray! This is what YA Lit Con's all about, I really hope loads of kids went away inspired from having seen book creators are real-life people, and realised that they could also write/draw/film/animate their own stories. Ah, here's Andy and gang... with a reviewer who's name I can't remember(?), writer Sally Nicholls, and blogger/writer Laura Heath (aka Sister Spooky, in the hat).

I went to see Natasha Ngan on her panel about blogging, but I got there a bit late and couldn't get close enough to hear anything. I was quite curious to hear about Natasha's fashion blog, Girl in the Lens, from which she earns more of an income than from her books. She works with her partner, Callum McBeth to come up with high-quality photo shoots, and I think the lovely visuals, along with her specific taste, are a big part of the secret to their success. Natasha's publishers had sent along 100 early editions of her new book The Memory Keepers, and they were snatched up so quickly that I didn't even manage to get one.

I don't watch Game of Thrones, but it had a BIG presence at the wider London Film & Comic Con. And of course everyone wanted to sit in the throne, including Mitch Benn, (whom I met for the first time in the Green Room). We nipped over with Emma to the second hall to see the comics area, and Mitch had fun ogling the two Batmobiles. (Thrones photo lifted off Mitch's Twitter feed.)

Here's a trailer for Mitch's book Terra. It looks like it has some links to my upcoming Cakes in Space book with Philip Reeve (both about girls have wacky space adventures), so perhaps I'll see him again at a future space-related event or something.

Lovely book world people! I think they were amused at how normal I looked there in full costume. Photo by Karen Ball of (eek, help me with the name!), me, Sally Nicholls and Jo Cotterill (who's very active on the Girls Heart Books blog).

In fact, there were a LOT of girls there who heart books.

My favourite costumes are always the home-made, self-designed ones. Some of them were well suited to the hot, HOT hall, but... POOR CHEWIE! I really felt for whoever was in there; I think the heat kept the St John's Amubulance service fairly busy.

At the end, all the YALC writers, illustrators and publishers gathered for a party hosted by Booktrust. Here's Claire Shanahan passing out YALC-themed mini cupcakes, baked by Bluebell Kitchen. And a group photo, where Patrick Ness and the rest of us tall folk are hiding at the back.

YALC's still running today, and I'm sure lots of people will reflect on what a great weekend it's been. Huge congratulations to Malorie Blackman, Katherine Woodfine, the whole team at Booktrust, London Film & Comic Con for bringing in such an excellent partner convention, and to my fellow comics panelists. Thanks for making it a great day!

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7. summer reading challenge: a weird & wonderful mythical world!

Snakes alive! This year's Summer Reading Challenge is off to a great start! Here are a bunch of us at the British Library launch, being our usual quiet, demure selves.

That's illustrator-animator Steve May on the left (who did a great job animating the Mythical Maze trailer), writer-illustrator Liz Pichon, some tall chick in a hat, writer (and former actor, I discovered) Guy Bass, and writer Helena Pielichaty. Oh, and here's Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman! (She's also been super-busy coordinating this weekend's London YA Lit Con.)

One of the things we were asked to do was to make a video saying which book we'd like to recommend to people doing the Summer Reading Challenge. I chose my studio mate Gary Northfield's book, The Terrible Tales of the Teenytinysaurs. It's a brilliant read: funny, and beautifully drawn.

Look out for the beautiful dark underwater scene that Gary carved out of a giant sheet of scratchboard! (Here's a peek at it from our studio.) Gary's the person who originally showed me how to do library events, he's ace.

Here you can see me talking about Teenytinysaurs. I think I might have been underwater, too, or just very tired, because I don't think I usually talk that slowly and deeply. Kind of weird sounding. But, hey... FLOURESCENT MEDUSA HAT.

Oo, and can you tell what book the Minotaur is reading? Yup, that would be Teenytinysaurs. (I think it has its horn through a Harry Potter book.)

I'm so enjoying keeping an eye on the #SummerReadingChallenge hash tag on Twitter. So many libraries are being wonderfully creative with turning the Mythical Maze characters into big displays! Check out this dragon from Church Stretton Library in Shropshire:

Jules Tudor made an awesome yeti! And a whole bunch of displays from Havering Library have totally been cracking me up; check out this slightly sinister Nessie.

And this yeti and unicorn, also by Havering Library! Ha ha! I love these.

Oo, super creative Mythical Map of the children's library by Totton Library!

And I love seeing how the parents are starting to get into it. Tweeted by Ged Hirst:

Lucy Yewman and her mum Sarah Yewman are always game for a book-related activity! Here's Lucy's Medusa Story Starter comic. (You can download yours from the Summer Reading Challenge website.)

And Sarah did one, too! I absolutely love it when adults take part in making comics and other children's activities; it shows kids that this isn't some patronising thing for little 'uns, it's something people can keep doing and enjoying into adulthood. Kids get much more excited about their own work when they realise adults read, write and draw, too. Great comic, Sarah Yewman!

And another comic tweeted in by an grownup, Damon Herd:

There's even a Mythical Maze app! Here's the Solus team, who went about putting it together.

You can play games, see the figures go 3D when you find the matching posters in your library, and learn more about each character. Download it free here from iTunes.

We had three lovely speeches by these VIPs: Chief Executive of The Reading Agency Sue Wilkinson, Chief Executive of the British Library Roland Keating and Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman. Thanks for all you do to support reading and libraries (and for the kind words and flowers)! You can see more photos from the launch here on the SRC Flickr page.

Keep an eye on the #SummerReadingChallenge hash tag, @readingagency on Twitter, on Facebook, and on the website itself for frequent updates and new videos. Exciting times!

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8. should you go to art college?

I get a lot of people asking me for advice about art college. Should they go? Will it help them get work in illustration, children’s books or comics?

Camberwell Alumni Day

I can’t answer for everyone; art college might be right for you, but wrong for someone else. But here are a few tips from my own experience and looking around at friends and fellow students who have gone to art college:

1. You don’t have to go straight from school to art college.

Everything you do goes into the pot of good experience. First, here’s my background: Illustration wasn’t my focus of study when I did my Bachelor’s Degree in the USA. I studied Russian language and literature at Bryn Mawr, and did what’s called a ‘minor degree’ in History of Art. The art faculty came to a private arrangement with me where they let me take a few more studio classes than was strictly part of the History of Art requirements, so I still got in quite a bit of painting and drawing. But this course of study was a great preparation for being an illustrator. When I took the study-abroad option for my third year, I found huge inspiration in the art galleries and museums of Moscow, and it gave me a unique focus to what would later inspire my own artwork. One of the international schools in Moscow didn’t have an art teacher, so I volunteered teaching art for half a day every Friday. This was rather frustrating, but SUCH good training for later, when I’d be leading workshops and standing on stage, presenting my book to crowds of up to a thousand kids. After my year of study in Moscow, I stayed for a second year, delaying my graduation, and worked at The Moscow Times newspaper as a full-time copy editor and occasional journalist. That experience taught me a lot about how the media works, how to catch mistakes in text, and how to write headlines and photo captions. (I often think of this blog as a series of photo captions.) I learned that I really didn’t want to be a journalist, but I love the freedom of blogging; I can write what I want, when I want, and if I make the occasional mistake, it’s unlikely anyone will care enough to sue me or fire me. I graduated with my BA in Russian in 1999 and didn't start art college until 2005.

Some of my degree show artwork

Mature students rock. When I was on the MA Illustration course at Camberwell, the people who seemed to get the most out of the course were people who had already been working for some time in the field. They knew which questions to ask and how to set themselves challenging projects. People who had come straight from a BA course seemed slightly bewildered that no one was telling them what to do, and they didn’t know how to go out and supplement their training with outside courses, lectures and professional groups because they didn’t really know what they needed. It’s a bit of a sweeping statement, but with a few exceptions, I wouldn’t really recommend anyone go to art college before they’re 30. Study something else first, get work experience. And that way you’ll avoid being part of the young groups who are desperately worried about maintaining their artist image, wearing cool clothes, getting drunk, trying to learn how a washing machine works, etc. Mature students are almost always much more focused.

2. Do your research.

Consider the commute. I was looking at several courses and ended up choosing the one that I could reach the most easily on my bicycle. If a college is local to you, that’s a great bonus because you’ll be more likely to pop in frequently to use its facilities (the printmaking room, the library, etc).

A student-organised printmaking workshop

You can do short practice runs. I took about five courses of evening classes before I committed to art college: one in Book Arts, one in Printmaking, and then I repeated a Children’s Book Illustration course three times with Elizabeth Harbour, because she was such a good teacher. In fact, several of us repeated the course, which set us lots of small, achievable bookmaking projects, and she changed it a bit each time to accommodate us. We got on so well during the course that we set up our own critique group, meeting monthly at a book shop cafe for several years.

Go along to Degree Shows. Have a look at the work, meet the course leader, get a sense of the vibe of the place. Does most of the work look carefully considered or last-minute and rushed? (Camberwell's having its MA degree show next Tuesday.)

A good course is all about the teachers. I lucked out, my year was the first year Janet Woolley came over from Central Saint Martins and started teaching at Camberwell. We had only 14 people on the course (and now it’s something like 70 people). I suspect that the most important thing isn’t the reputation of the art college, it’s the person who’s teaching it. After I started, I talked with people who’d been on the course before Janet took it up and it sounded dreadful. Janet really took an interest in us, deeply cared about us, and always fought our corner. She brought in great guest speakers and had wonderful anecdotes from her own experience, being one of Britain’s leading illustrators. Ask around, find out about a good course leader and follow that person. I'd say bypass the stand-offish, hipster ones for the kind, nurturing ones who listen to what you say and care about you. They're the ones who will want you to do well, not see you as a waste of their time or a potential rival.

With my beloved course leader Janet Woolley, 5 years after graduating

3. Taking the course won’t be enough.

You'll need to go above and beyond requirements. MA courses in the UK are very ‘self-directed’, which means there will be no one assigning you constant homework and cracking the whip over you if you don’t do anything until two weeks before your degree show. I’ve seen people get through courses who only did something like five images. A course certificate means NOTHING to clients and publishers if you can’t back it up with good work. You’ll need to be working every day, pushing yourself, trying new things, signing up for outside courses.

You'll need to find outside training. For me, this included the AOI Business Start-up Classes, SCBWI events, and writing book and event reviews for a website (Nikki Gamble’s Write-Away website). A bunch of us on the course pooled money to hire a model and college space to do life drawing sessions. I’d already been illustrating books for five years, and I knew I needed to learn about illustration legal issues, how to do my taxes properly, how to promote my work, and meet other people also working in children’s books. My course wasn’t specifically a children’s book illustration course, and there was no help if I wanted to learn about writing as well. But SCBWI conferences and forming an outside critique group helped with that. Taking part in small-press comics festivals helped me learn how to make complete small books, print them and promote them.

An early collaborative book

(I’d recommend festivals such as Leeds Thought Bubble, Kendal Lakes festival, London Comica Comiket, ELCAF; go along to one or two to see what they’re like before you book a table.)

Meeting new people at the Gosh Comics book club

Your English needs to be good enough to network properly and understand lectures. If you're reading this, you're probably okay, but beware a course that takes lots of foreign students for the money but doesn't pay much attention to their language skills. Being able to mix with classmates is important to your own growth. I heard a story of some parents in China who sued a London college when their daughters came back from two years's photography study, having learned nothing other than how to switch on their cameras.

You'll need to conquer your shyness; sometimes taking risks will help you meet just the right person. I joined a comics web forum that led to meeting Paul Gravett at a pub, and he put me in touch with publisher David Fickling, who was starting up a new comic for children and scouting for talent. While I made comics for David, he liked what he saw and also signed me up to illustrate a picture book. Check out Laydeez Do Comics, meet people at the monthly London Comica Social Club, go along to the Society of Authors events that are open to the public. If you live in a remote place, get ready to travel a lot.

My first-ever comics table at the Alternative Press Fair... Those Tozo comics on the left belong to David O'Connell, who's now my Jampires co-author!

4. Decide: Part-time or Full-time? I found part-time study was way better than full-time. I think this may have changed at Camberwell, and there may now be a limit to how many lectures you can go to. But I treated the two years like a full-time course and went to all the lectures, getting double value for money. One year of study isn't really enough; you basically have to be working on your degree show project from the start, and you’ll have far less time to experiment and use the print studios. You may not be able to study part-time if you’re a foreign student, for visa reasons.

5. Give your work space to grow and change. When you apply, it's a good idea to have in mind what sort of project you want to set out for yourself. I'd recommend not setting yourself one huge project, such as a long animation or a full-length graphic novel. Everyone I knew who did this got bogged down in it and, since their work was changing, it made their earlier work on the project look out-of-date. I set myself the task of doing several different projects, exploring different ways of working (3D, gouche on coloured paper, egg shapes, comics, whatever took my fancy, really) and then near the end, I chose the best of those things and did a bit more of them for the degree show display. I did finish my course with a picture book dummy, but it looked forced and strained, and more of an exercise in learning how to make books than something publishable. My first publisher quite rightly wasn’t interested in it, he wanted me to illustrate a text he’d found elsewhere.

6. A course can be a good excuse to work. You don’t NEED to pay anyone to set yourself projects for drawing and making books. But sometimes you need to have the excuse so the people around you will give you the space to do it. You can say to them, ‘I need to do this for my course’ and they may have more respect for that than if you’re trying to develop completely on your own. If that chatty friend comes over and stays and stays, you can tell her you have homework. It’s a bit like keeping a studio; a lot of people didn’t think I had a real job until I stopped working from home. It's a lot of money, but is this something you need to do?

7. Get ready to keep a blog while you study.

It’s good practice for learning how to put your work in context, you’ll learn how to talk about it. Blogging can help you remember what you’ve been doing and look back and see how your work has changed and improved. Blogging will help you ease more gently into the world of promoting your work and you won’t have to start from scratch after you graduate.

Drawing of exam time, the scary factor slightly exaggerated

These tips aren’t comprehensive, but hopefully they’re a good start! Good luck! (Check out my FAQ page for more information.)

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9. summer reading challenge makes a slithering start!

Yesterday evening, The Reading Agency, the British Library and Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman launched the Summer Reading Challenge Mythical Maze! (I wore a Medusa hat.)

More about this soon! You can get updates on the Summer Reading Challenge website, their Facebook Page, and follow the #SummerReadingChallenge hash tag on Twitter. (Be sure to use the hash tag if you do something fun at your library that you want to share!)

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10. shark & unicorn: are dragons allowed?

The theme of last weekend's edition of The Funday Times was DRAGONS. Which was very handy, because the dragon is also a big part of this year's Mythical Maze Summer Reading Challenge!

Shark & Unicorn are mucking about with Dragon a bit here.

A cool thing: yesterday I got to meet my Sunday Times editor for the first time! Her name is Karen Robinson, and we'd only ever talked by e-mail. The Funday Times is mostly a film tie-in, but Karen's keen to nurture local talent, and I've been thrilled to have a regular comic in a real broadsheet newspaper. (Well, only six times a year, but regularly six times!)

I had lunch with her and Damian Kelleher, who's been my amazing champion and go-between for Summer Reading Challenge, Funday Times, Kids Week and lots of other things.

And Damian has a new book out this week! A Dog in No-Man's Land ties in with the First World War commemorations and looks great, published by Templar, with illustrations by Gary Blythe, edited by Helen Boyle (of WRD magazine) and designed by Nghiem Ta (who's worked on loads of Templar's 'ology' books).

They've tucked all sorts of letters and postcards in amongst the pages, giving it a wonderful scrapbook-like feel, and I'm very much looking forward to reading it. Congratulations, Damian, Gary, Helen and Nghiem!

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11. cakes in space: dressing up!

When Oxford University Press publicists asked last year if Philip Reeve and I had any Cakes in Space-themed photos to use for book fair publicity, this was the best we could get together at the time:

But we knew we wouldn't be able to draw outfits onto ourselves for stage events. (Actually, that would be very cool; possibly for another book.) And dressing up in space costumes is... just plain fabulous, so we set about designing something for ourselves. First, I needed a hat! Of course. There's this line in Cakes in Space, when space voyager Astra first meets a killer cake:

The top of the cake flipped open like a pedal-bin lid, revealing a wide mouth and lots of shiny teeth.

...And that seemed a good template for an INTERESTING piece of headgear.

My sculptor friend Eddie Smith offered to help me with the mechanics of it, and he's generally just good at this sort of thing. (He built the structure for my Giant Seawig. Read about that in an earlier blog post.) So here's Eddie, with a rough prototype, made from cardboard, tubing, a turkey-baster squeezeball, and cork and a bit of folded inner tube. Fill the inner tube with air and it tries to straighten; the mouth opens.

Ha ha, here's the more finished version, in action!

Those plastic balls they sell at the pound shop make great eyeballs. I did a test one, to see if it would take the Posca paint pens. Eddie's great to work with, he can solve any problem, and he's just set up a new Facebook page for his 3D art. Do do pop over, have a look, and give him a 'like'!

Now for the rest of the costumes! I can sew a little bit, but I need to take my machine in for reconditioning and I don't have a lot of time, with all the book work and events I've been doing. One day I was in the studio and someone popped by to collect some post that had been delivered, or use my printer or something, and we got talking; she said she designed costumes. A-ha!, I thought. That person was Wendy Benstead, and she has a whole amazing tailor workshop on the top floor of our building. I showed her these drawings I'd made of possible costumes, and she said she could do them!

Here's Wendy with her Head Maker, Heather Coad. (They don't always wear matching outfits.) They do a lot of bridal work, but Wendy's training is in corsetry, and Heather loves cosplay, so they were chuffed to get a more eccentric costume commission.

To help keep costs down, I went out myself to find the materials, to the shops on Goldhawk Road. The silver quilting for Philip's suit was easy to find, but the turquoise proved more difficult. And I steered clear of the lighter blue because I was really worried about looking like a mattress. I got most of the fabrics on that road, but ended up sending away to Germany for the turquoise quilting. (I could have quilted some other fabric myself, but again... time.)

The first thing Wendy did was make what's called a toile, a rough cotton version of the outfit, just to get the pattern worked out. The toile wasn't terribly flattering, but Wendy reassured me that this was normal. It was much more fun when I visited the studio and saw some actual glittery material peeking out...

Here's some of my space dress, still in pieces:

Philip and I went for a couple fittings when he was in town for conferences and such. His suit was loosely based on some we'd seen in the catalogue for the Davie Bowie exhibition at the V&A Museum. Wendy played around with the tubing on my dress; we wanted to get a sort of retro Jetsons look.

I was a bit worried with my cone-shaped skirt, that if I stood up on stage, the audience would be able to see right up my dress. So I found this big-mama petticoat on Ebay, again from Germany. It had a distinct pong of being stored too long in a wet basement when it arrived, but I gave it a good wash and it was fine. Gosh, is it fluffy.

I thought I was going to shape my own wig, using these foam doughnut things, but I couldn't get that hair to do ANYTHING. I wanted it to look sleek and it stayed resolutely messy.

I gave up on the blue hair, but it looked great as a mermaid hairdo for our Manchester Seawigs Parade. Instead, I found some clip-on buns in one of the African hair shops near Peckham Rye station which worked much better. It's sort of a Princess Leia look... PRINCESS LEIA CAKE.

Months earlier, Philip had found some fab space specs in Camden Market while we were there with his family. (I think his son, Sam, actually bought them, and Philip convinced Sam to let him borrow them.)

I wanted to paint my backup pair of glasses white, but I was scared of ruining the finish on them; Eddie recommended painting them first with PVA glue. I tried it on an ugly old pair first, and the glue and paint peeled off easily. And then I got a sheet of some glittery mirror stuff from 4D Model Shop in Shadwell and cut it into a necklace shape. Not bad! We looked like something out of a some British 1970s Sci-fi film, the kind that had slightly cheap sets, but it didn't matter. SUCCESS!

My boots were easy to find on Ebay, but we had a hard time finding glam turquoise boots for Philip. They don't really exist in Internet land. So we settled with white boots from Demonia, which do the job just fine.

And then we were ready... WE CAN SPARKLE! Greetings, earthlings!

Photo by Michael Thorn, Achuka

Huge thanks to Wendy, Heather and Eddie for all your help with the costumes! And to Stuart, for putting up with me parading around the house looking weird and asking his opinion on things such as blue hair. He looked super-impressed when I put on the whole costume, and that was a fun moment. Again, do check out Eddie's Facebook page, and you can follow Wendy Benstead on Twitter as @CostumesByWendy. You can also read an interview with her and see more photos in Guise magazine here.

Photo by Michael Thorn, Achuka

Cakes in Space launches at the beginning of September with Oxford University Press.

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12. director's cut

Stuart and I share EVERYTHING, even hair extensions.

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13. cakes in space: the pre-launch

Since my co-author Philip Reeve and I COME FROM THE FUTURE... we can see into the future, all the way to September, when our mothership Oxford University Press will be launching our new book together...

Photo by Michael Thorn, Achuka

Until Tuesday, no one had seen anything printed except the orange uncorrected proof copies, which were only half illustrated, with pencil roughs in the second half. But just before our press pre-launch party, a few copies of the final version arrived in Oxford, and the team brought them for us to look. Super exciting!!

Photos by Michael Thorn, Achuka

I can honestly say Philip and I are both thrilled with how it came out! It's printed on lovely paper and just like Oliver and the Seawigs, is such a nice thing to hold. Here it is, being displayed by Julia Harrison from Daunt Books Marylebone, who will be hosting our Publication Day launch party in September. (I hope you can come!)

Photo by Michael Thorn, Achuka

These front endpapers weren't in the earlier proof copy! Here's a peek at the planet Astra and her family are setting off on their voyage to colonise, until something goes terribly wrong with the Nom-o-Tron food machine.

Photos by the Nova Mundi Tourism Board

Oliver and the Seawigs had a blue colour theme, and this one's orange. And did the editorial team come dressed to theme... oh yes!

Photo by Michael Thorn, Achuka

Check out these great fascinators, made by our super-talented designer, Jo Cameron!

And Jo somehow managed to find this perfect retro dress in Cakes in Space colours! Here she is with our Oxford University Press publisher Liz Cross and our editor Clare Whitston. I love working with these people; they've given us so much creative freedom but at the same time, being right there with timely help whenever we need it. (The fabulous Elaine McQuade should also be in that group but she's taking the photo.)

And here's our wonderful publicity team! The two on either end are the freelance publicists, Liz Scott and Philippa Perry, who led us around earlier in the day on the amazing Operation CAKE DROP. And from OUP, from left: Harriet Bayly, Charlotte Armstrong, Alesha Bonser and Keo Baxendine.

We held the party at BB Bakery, between London's Covent Garden and the Strand, and it was perfect; I've often walked by (and yes, Instagrammed) the amazing cakes in the window. They look like the most fabulous hats you could imagine.

And gosh, they made a good cup of tea!

David Maybury and Hayley Campbell seem to approve. ...Wait, that is not tea! I don't know what was in there, but it was very potent and super tasty. Photo of mystery cocktail tweeted by one of our favourite bloggers, Sister Spooky.

Photo by Michael Thorn, Achuka; photo on right by Laura Heath/@sisterspooky

OUP had invited booksellers, librarians and media people, and Liz Scott introduced them to the book and talked a bit about what it was like to work together.

Photo by Michael Thorn, Achuka

Here's OUP's Elaine McQuade, Philip's agent Philippa Milnes-Smith, and Cheltenham lit fest organiser Jane Churchill. I somehow didn't manage to get a photo of my agent, Jodie Hodges, but she's always such a massive help to me.

Then Philip and I sang our NEW SONG! It was a bit rough as it was our first-ever performance, but we had fun with it and it got some laffs... possibly because of all the people looking in from the street, wondering what on earth was going on in there.

Photo by Michael Thorn, Achuka

Also, I should point out that Philip was wearing BLUE LIPSTICK. This is a very different Reeve from the tweedy fellow we know so well. Oh, and David Maybury's not one to miss out on getting painted.

Photo by Michael Thorn, Achuka

Nice photo-bombing, Maybury & Campbell...

Ha ha, here's a link to a lipsticking video David shot:

Huge thanks to photographer Michael Thorn, who took such great shots during the evening. You can check out the whole gallery of photos over here on his Achuka website. Do have a look, they're lovely! Michael also runs a great blog about children's books, and you can follow him on Twitter: @achuka. Here he is, a rose between two unicorns.

A peek at the crowd... oo, I love Kirsten Grant's multicoloured dress.

Photo by Michael Thorn, Achuka

Speaking of costumes, I'm planning to do another blog post about them specifically, but the dress, gauntlets and suit were made to our sketches by Wendy Benstead and her team (who work upstairs in my studio building). And my sculptor friend Eddie Smith helped me make the hat. (Eddie's the guy who built the Giant cling-film Seawig with me for the Golden Hinde pre-launch party.) He figured out how to make the mouth open and close! You can see it if you click on David Maybury's vine video:

And no party would be complete without my excellent studio mates. There they are on the right, Fleece Station space cadets Elissa Elwick, Lauren O'Farrell and Gary Northfield.

Photos by Lauren O'Farrell

We're an excitable lot.

Photos by Lauren O'Farrell

Hope to see you at Daunt Books in September for the Cakes in Space Publication Day party! In the meantime, here's a list of events on my website if you want to see if I'm flying in my jetpack to your area anytime soon.

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14. summer reading challenge: medusa comic story starter

COMICS are very much a part of this year's Mythical Maze Summer Reading Challenge! Get a kid hooked on comics and you have a kid who loves reading. In fact, you don't even have to 'get' kids hooked on comics; if you leave a kid in a room with a good comic, he or she will go right for it. And the miracle of comics is that, as soon as they've read the comic, they'll very often want to make one! What other form of reading inspires such instant creativity?

Pop over to the Summer Reading Challenge website, where I've created a comic Story Starter: two panels of a comic, and you (or a kid you know) can continue the story.

The downloadable sheet only provides six panels, but you're more than welcome to make lots more panels on another sheet of paper, or just use the first two and create panels any size and shape you want. (You can even finish the story just with writing and no pictures, but it's making comics I'm more excited about. Drawing a stick Medusa is JUST FINE.)

It might be fun to bring in some of the other Mythical Maze charcters! Or perhaps bring Medusa in the comic right where you live, to your home, school, supermarket, etc. Or take her and her snakes to the moon, it's your call. If you'd like to enter it into the competition, the closing date is 8 September 2014.

The Summer Reading Challenge is setting out all sorts of Story Starter competitions by different writers and illustrators; keep checking back to the website. (Please do tweet me - @jabberworks - your comic, I'd love to see it! Use the #SummerReadingChallenge hash tag!)

It's great seeing different library displays popping up on Twitter! Here's one tweeted by @EmilyFellah in London:

And another by @MartinColes in the Vale of Glamorgan:

Don't forget, I've listed a bunch of ideas for Summer Reading Challenge activities here on my blog. Hope you have fun with it!

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15. operation cake drop


On Monday, my Cakes in Space co-author Philip Reeve and I embarked on a barking mad mission to CAKE all our publicists' friends in their media fortresses. And we did it in space suits! Seeing Philip in a space suit cracks me up so much, particularly after he sent me this clip of David the android in the film Prometheus:

...Is that Reeve or what??! Anyway, Philip couldn't actually be there for the first part of the day, since he'd been away from Dartmoor in Manchester for a few days already (for our Grand Seawigs Parade). But publicist Philippa Perry and I had loads of fun running around delivering alien cupcakes, starting with The Telegraph. (Martin Chilton, you are CAKED!)

Then the BBC... CAKED! (Ha ha, the little cake has a pass.)

See all the crowds trying to get a glimpse of the famous killer cake. ...No, not really, they were there to see Australian band 5 Seconds of Summer, but it was pretty funny watching them go absolutely mad when the guys came out the door.

Press Association... CAKED!

The Guardian... CAKED!

Ah, and here's Reeve, just beamed in, along with publicist Liz Scott...

The Times... CAKED!

The Bookseller and We Love This Book magazines... CAKED!

Tom Tivnan was hiding in the back of the office but we managed to cake him all the same.

And then we went on to our Cakes in Space media pre-launch party! More about that soon... Oxford University Press launches Cakes in Space at the beginning of September and we're hugely excited. (Well, I'm excited. Androids only simulate emotion, but Philip's very convincing.)

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16. eep!!! manchester children's book festival 2014

Do you have those occasional moments, when you're looking in the mirror and you realise you have blue hair and sparkly gloves and look like Dame Edna, that you think, how did I ever start doing this? If you'd told me I'd be doing things like this, even ten years ago, I never would have believed you.

The number one thing that struck me about the Manchester Children's Book Festival was... THE SEA MONKEYS. They were everywhere!!! Here are two that my co-author Philip Reeve and I drew for Simply Books indie bookshop just outside of Manchester, in Bramhall.

Kaye Tew and James Draper who run the festival asked us early on if it would be okay to use the Sea Monkeys from Oliver and the Seawigs for their mascot and we were thrilled to see them popping up all over the Internet before we even arrived!

The chief instigator of the Manchester Sea Monkey Invasion was Ann Lam, who's here (bottom left) with her two kids (her daughter helped her out with quite a bit of the knitting). She used the knitting and stitching pattern that my studio mate Deadly Knitshade (aka Lauren O'Farrell) designed and can be downloaded free from my website.

Check out all those awesome Seawigs!!! Loads of people made them for the Grand Seawig Parade. Here's Manchester librarian Debra Conroy looking incredible... and more Sea Monkeys!

Having the parade indoors was a great idea, as the rain couldn't put off anyone or ruin their fabulous headgear.

And I got to feel like Grace Kelly, or Evita, or the Queen, doing the balcony waving thing, ha ha.

Philip and I also visited Manchester Children's Hospital, which runs its own on-location school, and the staff had absolutely thrown themselves into the spirit of things. They said it was amazing, how many different things they could make out of a paper sick bowl!

We visited as guests of ReadWell, a wonderful charity that provide books to children in hospital. They go around with their rolling shelves (shown here) so kids can choose what they want to read. And the books are new, so that there won't be problems with infection for the kids in the isolation wards.

We led an event and a Seawigs Parade in the big lobby, and then went around visiting kids in the wards, and we could see how they'd light up when it was their chance to pick out a book. The school had enjoyed bringing Oliver and the Seawigs into the curriculum and it had inspired a lot of craft projects besides the Seawigs, including this diorama of Cliff the Rambling Isle.

It was fun seeing kids of all different ages - and their parents - getting involved and having fun, despite having some major physical setbacks. You can follow ReadWell on twitter: @ReadWellUK.

Great Seawig by Tracey Gallier! She's Assistant Head Teacher at the Manchester Children's Hospital School.

So much creativity! You can read more about our visit to the hospital over on the festival blog.

Janet and Maisie Chamberlain, both sporting fine Seawigs:

And little Joseph, who had our big flip chart Sea Monkey named after him and somehow managed to get back and make quite an elaborate lion thank you card for us before we visited him in his room. The glue was still wet! This guy was awesome, and had loads of good questions and comments for us. He had a full Seawig of decorations on his roving medical stand, which was named Mr Robot-Man.

The Sea Monkeys followed us wherever we went. When my husband Stuart and I checked into our hotel, there was one right there at reception!

And when we arrived in our room, there was a magazine with a big picture, which made me feel a bit giddy. (Thank you, Lancashire Magazine! Click on the pic for a larger image.)

When I saw that, I realised just how much costume the organisers were expecting, and they weren't going to get the six-foot Seawig, as I'd have to have arrived by forklift. And I'd forgotten my fancy gloves. So Stuart and I paid a visit to Afflecks Palace and stocked up.

Look, another great Seawig! This one's by the excellent Rachel Bruce.

A huge thanks to the team for making the Grand Seawigs Parade day so much fun! And thank you to everyone who waited patiently for Philip and me to sign and draw in your books; we hope you like them.

The night after our hospital visit and before our Seawigs Parade, we went to the opening launch event, where local drummers and dancers did some great performances for us.

The festival was also raffling off some of the Sea Monkeys, which disturbed me greatly, as I wanted to take them ALL HOME WITH ME.

Check out Ann Lam's notebook; she made some lovely sketches planning out different themed Sea Monkeys to go with different events.

And each Sea Monkey had its own profile!

Rachel Bruce and I joked that it was really an early version of a dating website, and that Zom doesn't care about looks, only brains.

Poet Laureate (and original instigator of the festival) Carol Ann Duffy officially opened the festival by reading one of her poems. This is the third year the festival has run, and organiser James Draper said they might go from doing it every two years to doing it every year, which is exciting and will take LOTS OF WORK. We passed by her office when I was looking for a mirror to fix my wig, and she works with James, teaching at Manchester Writing School, part of Manchester Metropolitan University.

I showed you the Sea Monkey picture that Philip and I drew for Simply Books; here we are outside the lovely shop, with owners Andrew and Sue Steel. They've been running it for ten years, and had no experience in running a bookshop. But Andrew was tired of his job, they brainstormed what they really wanted to do, and took the risk to do it. They really focus on being part of the community, and we saw lots of people come in for a chat and a cup of tea or a piece of cake in their little cafe, as well as buying books.

They had illustrator art everywhere. Here's a stairway painted for them by Emily Gravett as their reward for a competition:

And pictures on their wall by loads of illustrators we knew! See if you can identify any!

Sue took us to a school in Cheadle, Lady Barn House School, and we talked about Oliver and the Seawigs with them and led them in drawing Sea Monkeys. One quick teacher even managed to have a whole poster finished, made up of some of their drawings, before we left!

Thanks so much for hosting us, Lady Barn House! (And for the packed lunch you sent along with us!)

The festival's running for quite a long time - 26 June - 6 July - so we only overlapped with a few of the other guest speakers. But we were very glad to have the chance to spend time with writer Cerrie Burnell, author of a picture book called Snowflakes. Do you know the Evil Emperor Penguin comic strip in The Phoenix Comic? It's written and drawn by Laura Ellen Anderson, who also illustrated Snowflakes! We got to have dinner and breakfast with Cerrie and talked about books, including how we both felt it was important to show mixed-race families in picture books. (Her Snowflakes and my There's a Shark in the Bath both include parents from different races, but it's just an incidental detail in both, not part of the story.)

Huge thanks to everyone who made the festival possible, to wonderful Manchester-based publicist Liz Scott, who liased for us and made everything run smoothly, and to Kaye and James, who have been working their tails off for this. They're a great double act! You can follow the festival on Twitter at @MCBF2014 and be sure to keep an eye out for daily updates on their blog.

The festival's only just begun, and the Sea Monkeys are itching to try out all sorts of new shenanigans. Here's James, keeping a very close eye on them.

Goodbye, Manchester! Huge apologies to people I didn't manage to catch up with while I was there - the whole thing was a bit of a whirlwind - and I hope to see you again soon.

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17. the manchester sea monkey invasion!

Wow, Manchester Children's Book Festival has gone mad for Sea Monkeys! And it's culminating in a glorious Sea Monkey explosion this weekend! Check out all the stuff happening at this Saturday's Family Fun Day.

They put out a call for knitted Sea Monkeys (knitting pattern created by Deadly Knitshade, here on my website)...

And the Super Monkey Shout-out resulted in lots of super monkeys!

If you're anywhere near Manchester this Saturday, don't miss drawing a Sea Monkey and taking part in the Grand Seawigs Parade at 1:30. (Just grab anything you can find and stick it on your head; that's what the Rambling Isles do.) Then join us at 2:00 for Oliver and the Seawigs fun! (Booking details here.)

But back to those wonderfully cheeky Sea Monkeys, I just can't get enough of them.

My co-author Philip Reeve and I will be visiting Manchester Children's Hospital with a great charity called Readwell, who supply books to children in hospital. They even raise money to buy fresh, new books for children in isolation units, who aren't allowed to touch regular library books that have been handled by other people.

Hopefully the Sea Monkeys can bring some good cheer. It looks like they're bringing it already!

Philip and I will also be stopping in for a signing at Bramhall indie bookseller Simply Books at 9:30am on Friday, and then to Lady Barn House School for more Seawigs shenanigans. Which the Sea Monkeys have been busy organising!

What could possibly go wrong?


They have MEETINGS.

And they love drawing pictures of themselves.

Oo, look, one of them's making a Seawig!

And they've been going on outings! I wonder how good their driving skills are.

Oh dear, a Sea Monkey and a police bike might not be a good combination. Look out for further monkey mayhem.

If you want to see more Sea Monkeys or find out about the festival, check out their website, their blog, and follow them on Twitter at @MCBF2014, Sea Monkey wrangler Ann Lam @apytown and hospital children's book charity @ReadWellUK.

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18. petrus christus drawing

Playing around with cross hatching on Portrait of a Young Lady by Petrus Christus, painted sometime between 1465-1470.

Black and white, and with marker pen:

News: Our tickets for Edinburgh Book Festival have just gone on sale! Do come along, find out about our upcoming CAKES IN SPACE book and try your hand at drawing! Philip says 'we'll both be there, looking you're-not-going-out-dressed-like-that-tastic'. Click here for booking details. (And please ignore the photo they used of just me, from when I was still in art college in 2007.) Sat, 23 Aug, 10:30-11:30am.

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19. a shocked audience

I had such fun yesterday drawing my proposed Reeve & McIntyre replacement photo for the Edinburgh Book Festival website...

...and turning it into a chorus line... that I thought I'd try another crowd scene for my morning warmup drawing. (Spot the little kid getting mega-excited.)

Of course, Edinburgh is going to be JUST LIKE THIS. Well, probably with more kids.

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20. bare arms will be all the rage this summer

I found this photo of a weird 15th-century German silver wedding goblet in a book about The Hermitage, and thought it'd be fun to draw:

This lady is so much fun; I might try her again with antlers, which is how she holds up that cup on her head.

If you're looking for drawing inspiration, have a look at Daily Doodle, where people of all different levels of skill are trying their hand at the daily theme. Here's a beautiful one by illustrator Teri Smyth, who tweeted:

Today's @Daily__Doodle is #TheLittleMermaid mine is a homage to my fave mermaid, Iris, from Oliver and The Seawigs

Thanks, Teri! You can follow her at @TeriSmyth and Daily Doodle at @Daily_Doodle. Have a look at some of the latest drawings on the #Daily_Doodle hashtag.

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21. sniffing the print at ELCAF 2014

For the past couple years I've been trying to get over to the East London Comics & Arts Festival, organised by young and beautiful Nobrow Press, and always had some reason I couldn't go. But this year I headed up to Hoxton station and walked along Hackey Road to see what all the fuss was about.

I hadn't been up to Hackney Road for ages, and there was lots on which to feast my eyeballs.

Check out this cloud-blue house, just past Hackney City Farm. And then I finally reached the ramshackle little factory area where the fair was happening, and at 10:15am, there was already a queue to get in. I'm very glad I was early, as I saw complaints on Twitter from people who arrived after 1pm or so, when the festival was running a one-in-one-out policy. Steve May said he couldn't get in at all, although Steve Antony said he arrived half an hour before closing and managed to get in and do a fast sweep of the place. Whatever the case, the venue started out comfortably full, but by lunchtime was HEAVING.

I made a beeline for the table of one of my all-time favourite self-publishing heroes, Philippa Rice. And she had a new comic out! I bought one for me, and my sister. You can read my interview of Philippa about We're Out here. Philippa has such a great playful way of making comics, both with drawing and with collage, and I love her gentle humour and beautiful colour palettes. Her work's almost the exact opposite aesthetic to the Comics Unmasked exhibition I visited earlier at the British Library, and I think hers is just as subversive, in its own way. A couple weeks ago, I read an interesting Spiked article, surmising that some people

'...think that unhappy and twisted stuff is correspondingly profound, while comedy is trivial and facile. The truth is often the other way round, where horror and gore are really just sentimentality, prurient and moralistic at the same time, while comedy allows marvellous slippages of meaning that are much more intelligent.'

EXACTLY. And the humourous alternative doesn't have to be The Beano, either. (People always seem to mention The Beano, and there's so much more out there.) Philippa's comics are one of my first ports of call.

And one of my other ports is Isabel Greenberg's table! I love her Encyclopedia of Early Earth so much; it completely taps into the woodcut-printmaking, limited colour palette aesthetic I appreciate, and I like the way she sets up a story as some epic legend and then humanises it with little anachronistic bits of dialogue and humour.

I haven't been keeping very good tabs on people on the Internet, and I thought her latest mini, Rites, Customs and Histories of the Great Empire of Migdal Bavel was a comic, but it's more of a historical guide with text and pictures. It looks beautiful all the same, and I snapped one up. And then my eye was caught by the colourful Magic Capes display next to hers, and I ended up buying a copy of this gorgeous double-sided accordian print, The Firebird, by Lesley Barnes. I'd never heard of Lesley, but check out her website, she's amazing. She also picks up on a lot of folkloric imagery. Lesley was exhibiting with Tereza Rowe, who has a lovely young-readers comic out with Candlewick Press, Hearts.

Check out one side of The Firebird, so lovely! I really need a fireplace mantle to display this properly.

Oh man, I'm totally going to get lost in her website. Goodbye, world. She's @lesleybarnes on Twitter.

I Didn't See it Coming from Lesley Barnes on Vimeo.

And of course Felt Mistress and Jontofski! (Or Louise Evans and Jonathan Edwards, if you prefer.) I'm endlessly inspired by the different ways Jonathan pushes himself with experiments in drawing and painting, and I love the way he and Louise collaborate on amazing costumed monsters, tapping into her expert tailoring skills. (You can see my blog post from their Creature Couture launch earlier on my blog.) Here's a peek into their new booklet, The Hiber-Nation, and if I ever cosplay someone else's character at a comics convention, it's going to be this one, Myfi Snark. Check out her amazing blue-and-yellow Welsh tweed ensemble!

My studio mate Gary Northfield was gutted he couldn't come along, because he's a huge fan of French comics artist Anouk Ricard, and her Anna & Frogo books. So I got a text begging me to pick up a signed copy of her new adult book, Benson's Cuckoos (which I did). Here's her Drawn & Quarterly website (in English), and her own blog (in French).

Anouk comes across as quite shy, but the interviewer and translator did a wonderful job. (I'm sorry, I didn't catch their names. Can anyone help me here?) Anouk used to draw with pencils and pens, but she's recently gone to working purely digitally, with a Cintiq screen. She much prefers it to the Wacom pad, where she could never quite get the hang of not seeing her hand drawing. And she has much more fun drawing animals in human situations than people; she said she finds people boring. 'You can draw animals in so many different shapes, and use such different colours.' Right now she's adapting a Guy de Maupassant story Une vie, because she wanted to try drawing costumes from an earlier era, but still using animal characters.

It was great to see Greek creator of picture books, comics, screen prints, graphics and lots more besides, Katherina Manolessou. She's one of the first people I ever discovered in small press books, perhaps ten years ago, at the London Artists Book Fair. You can read my blog about her Zoom Zoom Zoom launch here.

And Viviane Schwarz! I got a copy of her Rabbit Stew in its first printing, when we shared a room for Thought Bubble festival in Leeds. But I want more for prezzies; it's a brilliant, twisted story about a family trying to relate to and encourage their daughter while being a bit freaked out by her. Here she is with my fab friend co-author David O'Connell. (Our picture book Jampires launches this September.)

I was so glad to see that ELCAF had planned family activities. (A lot of comics festivals have failed in this area, although they're gradually improving. David O'Connell and I are going to be a big part of the family activity area this year at Thought Bubble.) I loved the way Alexis Deacon set out this mural workshop: he's already made sea-life shapes on a the paper in one colour, and kids went in and decorated them. In the other activity area, families sat around two big tables full of toy parts, which they could assemble into their own weird and wonderful new toys, a bit like that neighbour kid in Toy Story 2. The kids were really getting into it.

Fab to see some beautiful experimental comics by Andy Poyiadgi, and a wearable book jacket by Otto Graphic.

I've had a big poster hanging on my studio wall by Swedish artist Matthias Adolfsson, so it was great to see him drawing at ELCAF. To say Matthias's work is incredibly detailed is an understatement; go check out his website. And here's The Book Sniffer blogger Emma O'Donovan with her Matthias loot, and David O'C smashed in between us, heh heh. (That's Matthias in the stripey shirt.)

Lovely comics and dance moves from Kristyna Baczynski and Dan Berry! If you haven't heard of Dan's Make It Then Tell Everybody podcasts, go check them out, they make for great listening. Dan's also organising the 24 Hour Comics Marathon I'm taking part in this October for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in Kendal. Dan said that all seven of us who are doing the 24 Hours were their in the room, but I didn't manage to spot Fumio Obata... boo!

No comics fair is complete without these guys: Joe Decie, Adam Cadwell, Warwick Johnnson Cadwell.

I'm a huge fan of Joe's work. Here's my review of The Listening Agent:

I love this book. Joe Decie has such a wonderful way of noticing small things about daily life, creatiing a witty commentary about them and then taking the situations one step further into the surreal. I keep having to buy new copies of this book because I keep giving it away to friends. When people tell me they don't read comics, understand comics, or think they're all about superheroes in tights, I urge them to read this; the way it deals with the ordinary makes the little stories in it completely extraordinary. I'd also recommend Decie's earlier book, 'The Accidental Salad'. In both, you get to see him being a bemused dad, dealing with his own foibles and gently pushing back against things in society that irk him. Decie uses beautiful ink linework and the subtle ink wash tones give the book a wonderfully human feel.

Warwick keeps some of my very favourite sketchbooks, I follow him on Twitter, Instagram, around comics fairs, etc. Ha ha, the first time I met him, I was running a table at a Birmingham comics fair and was so excited that I shut down my table for an hour and took him out for coffee. (It was my first con and I learned later that you're not really supposed to do that.) I bought another copy of Dangeritis, his collaborative comic with Robert Ball, which is full-on fights, car chase scenes, stupid moustached silliness, and drawn with jaw-dropping skill. (I nicked Adam's Instagram of Robert since I forgot to take a photo on the day.)

And not to forget Adam Cadwell, who is a brilliant artist in his own right and has started up Great Beast Comics with his friend Marc Ellerby; they're publishing some really exciting stuff. 'Like what?', you might ask. Well, besides Dangeritis, Great Beast have just come out with Rachael Smith's House Party, which raised crazy-big levels of money with Kickstarter crowdfunding. Congrats, people! Here's Rachael, with Dan Cox (Hitsville UK with Great Beast) on the left and John Cei Douglas (Show me the Map to Your Heart

with Great Beast) on the right.

And some of my favourite people were manning the Blank Slate table: Darryl Cunningham, Martin Steenton (his last day at Blank Slate!), Bridget Hannigan and Woodrow Phoenix.

Woodrow has his giant book on display at the British Library and you can view all the pages with him on June 17 at 6pm, July 22 at 6pm and August 12 at 3pm.

SHE LIVES - a fast preview of a very big book by Woodrow Phoenix from superadaptoid on Vimeo.

Oo, it's John Aggs! John's partner Nana Li cut off his long, thick hair, and I'm still doing big double-takes every time I see him. He has a new book out, full of guns and furries, and it really isn't my thing, but gosh, can the guy draw.

Oh, and who's that guy to the left of John? It's Mark Stafford, and check out the notebook sketches he was making on the day. And seated with him, two more super-talented dudes: Ed Hillyer/Ilya and Rob Davis. (In my children's book world, you probably know Rob for his Horrible Histories work, but don't miss his AMAZING Don Quixote books, and I'm super-excited about his upcoming The Motherless Oven.

Gareth Brookes (sans beard) and Hannah Berry (also without beard). The ELCAF percentage of beards in the crowd was unusually high.

I promised I wouldn't post the photo of Andy Poyiadgi when I accidentally made him knock over his neighbour's table display.

And great to see Barnaby Richards with Tor Freeman and Alice Lickens. Barnaby has a book coming out with Blank Slate, I think this autumn, which is exciting.

I wasn't able to stay all day, so I missed talks by Seth and Chris Ware. But I'd seen Chris give a Comica Festival talk before, and I don't know either of them, so I was more gutted to miss the post-festival drinks with people. Ah, well. All in all, a brilliant festival, and beautifully curated for a certain aesthetic which I really admire. I'd love to see the festival get a larger venue, so no one would have to be turned away. But I recommend if you go next year, be sure to get there early. And you can check out Nobrow's lovely shop on Great Eastern Street in East London, a great place for a good browse.

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22. happy father's day

Here's a photo of my dad and me, which my mother has carefully labelled in the photo album. My dad always picked top-quality literature.

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23. summer reading challenge: some mythical maze workshop ideas!

Recently a couple people have asked me for tips about running workshops tied in with the Summer Reading Challenge's theme of Mythical Maze. There are loads of things you and the kids could do, but here are a few ideas I've come up with to start you off!

* Design your own Mythical Maze: You've seen the maze I've drawn, with homes in it for each of the Mythical creatures; draw your own maze, and make homes in it for your favourite characters, either from myths or from any of your favourite stories! (Why not a Goblins maze? A Horrid Henry maze? A Shark maze? A Gruffalo maze? The Phoenix comic maze?) Alternatively, make a 3D maze with a box and folded cardboard for the walls, and decorate it.

Photo by Dave Warren

* Play Mythical Creature Consequences:
Simple version: Fold a piece of paper into three pieces, so it can be unfolded one segment at a time. The first person draws the Mythical creature's head, the second person draws the torso, and the third person draws the legs.

Alternative version: Keep each segment hidden from the next person: the first person draws the head and makes the lines of the neck just visible in the second segment, and folds over the paper to hide it. The second person draws the torso, without seeing the head, making the lines of the waist just barely visible on the third segment, and folds over the paper to hide it. The third person draws the bottom third of the character, then all three people watch as the paper is unfolded and the new creature revealed!

Here's one I drew with two other artists: Jonathan Edwards and Warwick Johnson-Cadwell. Another name for this game is Exquisite Corpse.

* Play Mythical Writing Consequences: Write one sentence setting a character off on an adventure. For example, decide on a treasure (or horrible thing!) that the creature really wants, and set it off on a Quest. Pass the sheet around the table, with everyone adding a new sentence to the story.

* Costume fun: I love dressing up! Choose one of the Mythical characters and make a costume! Here's a Mermaid costume (by helen_geekmum), but I've also seen excellent tails made out of painted paper plates for scales. If you make a costume, do tweet a photo with the #SummerReadingChallenge hash tag so we can all see it! (And that goes for all the activities!)

* Make a mask! Some masks you could make include a snake-y Medusa hat or mask, a Minotaur headdress with horns, a Garuda beak, a Mermaid wig full of washed-up sea objects, or a fishy tail. (You can download potential mermaid wig items from my Build your own Seawig activity sheets.)

* Comics Jam session: Pick one or two of the characters and have them interact in a comics panel. Pass the paper onto the next person and have them pick up with the second comics panel. Have a third person pick up the story in the third panel (or the first person, if there are only two people), and so on. Creating four panels is a good achievable target, but the Comics Jam could continue as long as the participants want.

You can create the panels as simply as folding a piece of paper into quarters. But here's a printable Comics Jam sheet I came up with for a Dublin workshop, if you want a bit of help. Feel free to adapt it to be more Mythical Maze themed. (Download the PDF here.)

I usually lead Comics Jams with groups of 20 people or less, but here's an example of a giant Comics Jam!

(Click here to read more about this Dublin Comics Jam and get more detailed instructions.)

An A3 folded-paper, four-panel Comics Jam:

Psst! My Jampires co-author David O'Connell and I haven't officially launched this website yet, but it has some tried-and-true, printable tips on leading Comics Jams if you'd like some help. Click on 'Set up Your Own Comics Jam'.

* Make a Comic: Read one of the myths starring one of our Mythical Maze creatures, then create a comic inspired by the character. (Chose one of the Anansi tales, for example, either to adapt one of the stories as a comic strip, or to come up with a new story.)

* Make Your Own Book! You could make a comic book, or a picture book or a book with just words. Perhaps you could write a line of a poem on each page. A fun way to start is by designing a colourful cover out of card, cut paper, glue and stickers. Feature your character on the front cover, then use folded paper to create a story inside.

When you're finished, staple or sew the folded paper booklet into the cover.

Bonus idea: create a poster advertising your new book! Swap book quotes with the other kids, promoting your book (see below):

* Make a Diorama! Create a world for one or more of the Mythical Maze creatures. Or for any book character!

You can do this lots of different ways. Here's how comics artist Philippa Rice builds a little living room for the characters from We're Out and My Cardboard Life:

I got the idea for making a shoebox world from Ezra Jack Keats' picture book, The Trip:

Here's a world a neighbour friend and I built in a box, using paint and Sculpey clay:

* Create a Mythical Maze boardgame! This can be as simple or as complicated as you like. Draw a basic route, then add perils and rewards. Decide if you want to play your game with dice, or perhaps kids could advance on a display board that shows the number of books they've read.

(This photo's from a workshop I ran at a Leicester library, click here to see more.)

If you want ideas for your gameboard layout, you can download and print my board from When Titus Took the Train. Feel free to trace it, simplify it, or adapt it for your own Mythical Maze game.

* Create a Name Totem: Did you know that when you cut your name out of paper, it can look like a cool mask? Use your own name to inspire a new Mythological creature! Here's my name, Sarah:

And here's how you do it!

Here are some more by @damyantipatel:

* Create a Mythical Maze mural: Let everyone add to it! Cover a wall in paper, leave the posters nearby, and have people draw their own versions of the mythical characters. Be sure the youngest ones can reach! Perhaps have them write a short description of the character next to their drawing, or even a very short story.

Last weekend, Alexis Deacon used a great way to inspire kids and create a mural that has a lovely unified feel to it. He created vague creature shapes using one colour of paint, then the kids could go in with black markers and turn the shapes into more detailed creatures.

Oil pastels can make beautiful, vibrant images:

But be careful, they're messy!

* Create a Life-Size Cardboard Maze! I've never actually done this, but Viviane Schwarz has! Find out more about it on her blog.

Photo by John Peacock

* Make a paper dragon kite, studying books on kite making and Chinese parade costume

* Create an Anansi web, perhaps tucking into it cut-out creature drawings by the kids. (Welsh librarian @martincoles has been posting photos of his library web.)

* Create a giant paper Nessie around the walls of your library. Feature a book cover image on each of her humps!

* Build a yeti cave. Create a fun place for kids to climb in and read books, with Yeti peeking out from the entrance to wave them in.

Hope that helps! Please do add any more ideas you might have in the comments here, and spread the word, if you think your fellow librarian friends might find these suggestions handy!

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24. YA lit con - going graphic

Hey guys, Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman and Booktrust are keen to have comics be part of this summer's YA Lit Con, and I'm chairing a panel with Emma Vieceli (Vampire Academ, Manga Shakespeare, Alex Rider series, BREAKS), Marcus Sedgwick (Dark Satanic Mills) and Ian Edginton (Sherlock Holmes novels, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Pride and Prejudice, The Recruit, Noughts & Crosses). We'll discuss adapting novels into graphic novels, and taking your questions. It's part of the London Film & Comic Con, and I hope you can come along! Here's a look at the programme; there's loads going on. And click here for information about tickets. Sat, 12 July, 12:30-1:15pm, followed by a book signing.

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25. moose kid comics goes live!!!

Today's a big day, for today is the launch of the MOOSE KID COMICS, 36 pages of free online family-friendly goodness from 40 of Britain's top comics creators!

With all this publicity that highbrow literary comics for grownups have been getting, it can be easy to forget how vitally important children's comics are. Moose Kid Comic is the brainchild of the amazing Jamie Smart (think the Find Chaffy books, Bunny vs Monkey in The Phoenix Comic, Desperate Dan in The Dandy, a squillion other things), and he wanted to set up a showcase of what British talent can do. Jamie's a great editor, it was fun working with him to polish up a rough strip I had in my drawer that I was hoping would see the light of day. Find out more about Moose Kid Comics in this interview with Jamie by Off Life.

And, of course, READ THE COMIC HERE!! Find out the origins of Tank Girl! And so much more! Be sure to let Jamie (and all of us!) know what you think by tweeting at @mooseheadcomics or leaving a note on its Facebook page. You can also follow Jamie at @jamiesmart.

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